by MOLLY LAMBERT
dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Who incepted my fantasy about wandering the wildernesses of New Mexico with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon? Who told the Coen brothers that every scrappy tomboy sees herself in Rooster Cogburn? When did Matt Damon get so goddamned awesome? Is he Leonardo DiCaprio's black swan because he reminds us that what we don't love about Leo is his humorlessness and inability or unwillingness to make fun of himself?
Since they slayed it on the first try with No Country For Old Men, you might think the Coen Brothers would shy away from making another Western. Apparently they're going for the hat trick and doing Blood Meridian next, although you never know if they'll zig. If they can manage to make Blood Meridian not humorless, I will give them a billion percent of my mind futures. True Grit is a perfect modern existential Western, a tribute to The Wizard Of Oz the way O Brother Where Art Thou was a retelling of The Odyssey.
Matt Damon knows how to play a white hat in an interesting way. He always brings something of a black hat attitude to it. That's why he was so great in The Departed and The Talented Mr. Ripley as a black hat hiding behind a white hat façade. He is a genuine movie star. True Grit reminded me a lot of Hayao Miyazaki movies, which feature determined little girls on dangerous missions in dreamlike environments. National treasure Jeff Bridges really gets his Orson Welles in Chimes At Midnight on.
In addition to Western tropes, all of the Coens' own tropes are here too: severed limbs and digits, repetitions of key phrases that become funnier as they are repeated, salty old men and fast-talking women. The Coens are tender-hearted nihilists, and so are all of their characters. Do other directors resent the Coens because they make it look so easy? I am sure that making it look that effortless is actually really fucking hard.
My favorite classic existential Western is Man Of The West, Anthony Mann's claustrophobic take on the genre. Existential Westerns are Waiting For Godot against the background of nature. They replicate what it's like to be inside your own mind, and recall all the weird Jungian dreamscapes you've ever seen in your sleep. Attempting to convey in film the intense spirituality of landscapes is Terrence Malick's life's pursuit.
I have a lot of love for Westerns, because I am from the West. I romanticize Western tropes, and so this movie was perfect for me because it was a romantic but not bloodless take on the Western. I also loved No Country For Old Men, which was decidedly anti-romantic. I love that the Coens can execute both and see no conflict in the differences between them. I respect versatility more than just about anything.
For me, True Grit and Black Swan both captured the atmosphere of dreams and nightmares in a way that Inception did not at all. The immanently mystical quality of some places, especially natural environments, derealization, the ways in which life sometimes feels like a three character play in which you are all three characters.
Avatar was James Cameron's Wizard Of Oz remake. The Wizard Of Oz is the ultimate existential fantasy movie, and seeing it for the first time is a lot of people's first mundane psychedelic experience with art. In dreams you are often on a mission of some sort, and it is comforting to think about having such a clear purpose in life. In real life our personal directives are much less obvious, if they are discernible at all.
The modern existential Western/Wizard Of Acid/spiritual landscape film that best captures and approximates my own internal processes is Easy Rider; the avatars of 1970s Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson are in constant battle for my eternal soul. God help you if Jack Nicholson wins. God help me if Dennis Hopper does. There's an excellent argument to be made that I am also McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Genre tropes always sound like liabilities in advance. I've seen enough bad child actors to be instantly wary of a movie centered around a child actor, but Hailee Steinfeld is a born natural. She more than holds her own against the A List actors all around her.
Fun facts about Hailee: her dad is "Body By Jake" as shown in the Pie-O-My episode of The Sopranos, she is a valley girl like me, that diva bitch from Glee snubbed her and it made her cry. If I was caught off guard by the ending of True Grit (and what an ending), it's because I expected her to grow up to be Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona.
Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is the cowardly lion. Bridges is one of my absolute favorite actors. I have a major soft spot for second generation actors, because a lot of them seem to understand how to treat acting like it's a regular job. They are not necessarily less prone to be divas, but certainly Jeff Bridges doesn't seem like a diva.
Neither does Matt Damon. That's why they are so good. They never pull focus, even when hamming it up. They understand how to collaborate, how to work on a team. It's a quality I think all the best actors have. Can somebody please cast Owen Wilson in their next Western? Shanghai Noon/Knights fan #1 over here, and I'm serious.
The Coens always create a sort of collaborative seeming world, perhaps because they are themselves collaborating. One wonders if Joel and Ethan ever disagree on things. Surely there must be times when one of them sees a shot one way and the other sees it some other way, and they have to compromise. Who is Micky and who is Dickey?
Here's how to fix The Fighter. Wahlberg and Bale swap roles. THINK ABOUT IT. Wahlberg would be much more genuinely menacing as the fuck-up crackhead brother, as anyone who's seen Fear can attest. Bale's natural smarminess would make the sympathetic lead more complex and interesting. Bale and Amy Adams actually had the best chemistry in the movie in their one real scene together. To make it up to me, they can do a webcast of True West where they switch roles every other scene.
Fargo is a kind of Western (a Midwestern), wherein Frances McDormand is the law. The Big Lebowski is a Western, in addition to being a neon noir detective movie. I was a little sad Sam Elliott never showed up in True Grit. He could have been The Wizard.
In the FMK situation that will be this year's Academy Awards, I think I'm going to have to kill The Fighter, fuck Black Swan (it was college!), and marry True Grit. But I need to see both of the latter again to be sure. How exciting is it to have so many actually good films in theaters? Winter movies are summer tentpole movies for film geeks.
Best Existential Westerns:
Man Of The West
Once Upon A Time In The West
The Good The Bad And The Ugly
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Ride The High Country
The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia
There Will Be Blood
Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. If somebody can hook her up to be artist in residence at the Gene Autry Museum she'll murder your enemies for you. She tumbls here and twitters here.
"River Crossing" - Carter Burwell (mp3)
"A Great Adventure" - Carter Burwell (mp3)
"Your Headstrong Ways" - Carter Burwell (mp3)
"Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" - Iris DeMent (mp3)